LOS ANGELES — These days, pop stars' outlandish get-ups sometimes eclipse their music, making them seem more like sideshow attractions than serious musicians. So it's almost a surprise to know there are still some singers who can maintain enviable chic.
Keri Hilson is one of those singers. The 28-year-old stunner turns a few heads when she walks through the pool area of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel for an interview on a recent sunny weekday morning.
Hilson commands attention not only for her looks but also for her place in the R&B and pop worlds as a songwriter and Grammy-nominated singer. (She was in contention last year for best new artist and best rap/sung collaboration for "Knock You Down" with Kanye West and Ne-Yo and performed at this year's official post-Grammy party alongside the Roots.) It also doesn't hurt that she is statuesque, has a perfectly coiffed bright honey-blond bob and has limbs so long and toned that she hardly needs the extra height her Report Signature 5-inch black platform wedges give her. (And, OK, maybe wearing a fuchsia bodysuit at 10 a.m. could also have something to do with all the necks craned in her direction.)
Hilson's lithe 5-foot-9 frame came from a childhood spent swimming regularly in her hometown of Decatur, Ga. At 14, she went on to compete in the U.S. Junior Nationals. Her involvement in swimming and basketball also dictated her early look, influencing the self-proclaimed tomboy to sport baggy pants and plaid shirts rather than the look-at-me platform shoes and fine jewelry she dons today.
"Growing up, I was a lot more boyish," says Hilson, who at this point has swaddled herself in a bathrobe for warmth, cloaking her Brian Lichtenberg body suit and black suspender trousers from Hollywood Boulevard boutique Lallure. "I only shopped in the men's department of Rich's and Macy's. My mom would drop me off in the men's section and do her shopping in the women's section.”
Hilson's preference for men's khakis, plaid button-down flannels and polo shirts as a teenager was also a reflection of the musicians (and fellow Georgians) she listened to growing up. "TLC had a lot to do with bringing back the tomboy look," she says. "The '90s was an era of mixing masculine and feminine. You might wear a cutoff shirt and show your girlie parts but then sag your jeans. I always loved the blend of hard and soft. Like, 'OK, if I'm showing this, then I'm not showing this.'"
It wasn't until she dived head first into music — majoring in theater and performing regularly at Emory University — that her current look started to emerge. "My style is always a good blend of edge and spunkiness and grace," says Hilson, who loves really bold, angular prints and is obsessed with houndstooth. She collects it in all forms, including scarves and armchairs, and has worn the print in every one of her videos. She even incorporated it into album covers and the background of her Twitter page.
Hilson describes her day-to-day look as "spunky with hard lines and polish." Case in point: She favors Dsquared's sharp street-aesthetic, oversized sunglasses. (Gucci sunglasses are also a mainstay, but at the moment she loves a huge square pair from Grey Ant), flat boots from Miu Miu and accessories from designer Melody Ehsani, with whom Hilson collaborated to create a gold "No Boys Allowed" pendant in honor of her new album.
Onstage — where she has been a lot lately, promoting the new album and the single "Pretty Girl Rock," an anthem encouraging women to be confident with their looks — Hilson's style is drastically different from her everyday look. "Onstage, I'm the superhero version of myself," she says. "When I perform, there's more leather and a lot of black, very strong pieces." The style is more an extension of her sound than a costume teetering on performance art, a la Lady Gaga or Cher.
"I dress a lot stronger because that's the way I feel my music is. In my everyday life, I'm more relaxed and carefree, but when it comes to music and relationships, I am really strong-willed. My (onstage) clothes are almost like putting on body armor," she says. There's that hard and soft again.
One of her softer, more fashion-y moments came at last year's CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards, which she attended with designer Chris Benz, wearing a single-sleeve, brown, blue and marigold circular print dress from Benz's spring 2011 collection. It's no surprise that Hilson is a fan of Benz's uber-colorful graphic prints and bold and quirky sensibility. And the admiration is mutual.
"Keri is such a confident, talented woman that her personality and beauty really shine through. She knows how to really wear clothes," Benz says.
The onetime tomboy also represents a global beauty brand as the face of Avon's Imari fragrance, joining the ranks of the company's other celebrity reps: Reese Witherspoon, Derek Jeter, Fergie and Zoe Saldana.
"The idea behind Avon is very empowering. They allow women of all backgrounds, colors and sizes to be entrepreneurs," Hilson says. "It's the same message in 'Pretty Girl Rock'; no matter what society says, whether we're too big, too thin, too light, too dark, we deserve to feel beautiful. And that makes this more gratifying to me."
The beauty deals, red carpet ensembles and time spent in the hair and makeup chair do take her far from her days of baggy pants and basketball shorts. "It is very ironic," Hilson says through a characteristic wide grin. "My family laughs all the time, they ask me, 'Hmm, do you really like those heels? Or are you just buying them just because?'
"I say, 'No, I actually really like them, thank you.' I can appreciate them. I don't like the way they feel, but I can appreciate a good heel. The tomboy part of me is still very much present, but as undertones. I'm grown now, and I want to look womanly."